Phantom Tollbooth

Beard of Lightning

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With a characteristic blend of bravado, overstatement, naivety, and genius, Guided By Voices' main man Robert Pollard once declared that if he had been in Phantom Tollbooth the band would have "ruled the world." Catching word of his boast, the members of Phantom Tollbooth (who had broken up almost a decade prior) called him out on it. Essentially saying "prove it," they erased the vocals from their final album, 1988's Power Toy, and mailed him the tapes. Pollard then wrote new lyrics, re-titled the songs, and constructed whole new melodies out of the Tollbooth instrumentals, thus already very Pollard-esque titles like "Extinction Plus" and "Circus of Wolves" became "Mascara Snakes" and "Crocodile to the Crown," and Power Toy was reborn as Beard of Lightning. And while it's not an album destined for global domination, it is certainly better than the original. The production is far less dated and the noise-skronk is toned down ever so slightly (also, we're thankfully spared the cover of Heart's "Barracuda" from the original). Pollard succeeds in making Phantom Tollbooth a bit more approachable without turning them into a pop band; a scuzzy art rock-fuzz still lingers, and the Captain Beefheart allusion in the above-mentioned "Mascara Snakes" is certainly apt, though they sound even closer to a more surreal version of the Minutemen. Admittedly, there is good reason to be dubious of Beard of Lightning; it's partly a lazy, fan-milking, vanity project, and yet another frustrating case of Pollard doing his best work on non-LPs and side projects. But like the man himself, it's an unlikely success.

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